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Is WWE’s “longer=better” philosophy sustainable?

Hell in a Cell is passed and TLC is this weekend. Together they represent the pinnacles of a busy month in WWE. Hell in a Cell’s over-three hour show mostly entertained, though other than the Sami Zayn turn it didn’t really do anything remarkable. Even the big Shane McMahon spot was just a repeat of his WrestleMania 32 bump. It wasn’t getting tossed off the arena’s roof like the rumors teased…but what kind of insane person would crave to see a human being be flung like a ragdoll off of a building?

TLC looks to continue the pattern set by Hell in a Cell. Of the half-dozen or so confirmed matches only the main-event has any intrigue behind it (will The Shield reunion last or is it a big headfake). The rest of the card looks to be pretty solidly in the “good match, predictable finish” category. That’s a common occurrence on the PPV before a big PPV. The February/March, July, October and December shows, historically, offer very little applecart-upsetting events; those are saved for the weeks leading up to the major shows that follow a month later.

We are still ensconced in the month of October, but soon enough we’ll put away the Jack-o-Lanterns, the plastic bats and the Halloween candy, and bring out the oversized Turkey decorations, the random vases with twigs in them and the replace the pumpkin spice candles with the smell of pumpkin pies. It will soon be November and for wrestling fans that means one thing:





Kidding kidding, those days are over. November means Survivor Series.

And in the current state of WWE we can expect an extra long affair. Last year’s event clocked in at around four-hours in length for the main-show, just as SummerSlam, WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble were before it. Together those shows represent the so-called “Big Four” that WWE holds as the most important, milestone-shows on their calendar each year.

(let’s pause for a moment of silence in remembrance of King of the Ring; gone but not forgotten)

When you add in the pre-show festivities, featuring a couple throw-away matches and a hefty dose of promotional hype videos, the total runtime of the event will balloon to five(!) hours. Granted, who among us will actually turn the show on as soon as it airs and watch all five hours of it? Very few, but if you’re in the live audience it’s a different ballgame. Sure there’s always a big chunk of the crowd that is late in arriving, but there’s also always a good third who are there when the doors open. Those fans—bless their hearts—will enter the Toyota Center and sit from 5:00pm to 10:00pm.

From WWE’s perspective, does Survivor Series warrant such a lofty standing? Is it an important enough event that the company should devote—and expect fans to sit through—a third of one’s waking day to it?

Historically the show is significant. It was the first post-WrestleMania event in the WWF. Sure there was “The Wrestling Classic” in November of ’85, but that was a one-off event and was mostly held as a trial balloon to see if people would buy another show after the success of WrestleMania. It proved a success and it proved that WrestleMania was not a fluke. WrestleMania 2 may have been a money loser but that was more due to the ambitious three-cities format employed. WrestleMania III blew everything away and cemented pro wrestling as a legit pop culture phenomenon. After that it was just a matter of when and how to do a non-Mania follow-up to expand the borders of Vince’s kingdom.

A Thanksgiving show made sense for a few different reasons. For one, the WWF’s popularity allowed Vince the opportunity to strongarm PPV providers into choosing his wrestling promotion over the NWA. Starrcade used to be a Thanksgiving tradition until Vince landed on their turf like a European settler, declared that land his land and bullied his way into securing the land for himself. The only thing he didn’t do was give the native dwellers a plague (unless you count Vince Russo).

The NWA buckled under the pressure and moved their annual supershow to December, leaving the WWF free to host the first ever Survivor Series. The event was a huge success and a new annual show was born. The next year the company added SummerSlam, and a year after that came the Royal Rumble (on PPV). For the next half-decade those four PPVs were the only “big shows” the company ran. That kind of grandfatherly status is hard to shake, which is why the WWE still tends to book their storylines around them as turning point shows. So from their perspective it’s understandable why Survivor Series would be expanded to an extra-long run-time.

But let’s forget WWE’s perspective for a moment. WWE is just a service provider: They provide a particular brand of entertainment to us (the paying customers). So let’s look at things from our perspective.

Is there anyone out there clamoring for more WWE in their lives?

Already this year we have had thirteen “PPV” events, with at least three more still to come but with the possibility of a fourth to be added in early December. The company shows no willingness to ease up either. There was some talk last year that they may do away with a few shows and not have as many brand-specific events, but those ideas seem to have been scuttled. WWE is all-in on brand-only shows in a way they weren’t during the first brand-split simply because the WWE Network model is much more forgiving than the old Pay-Per-View model.

And on regular PPV weeks, that means three hours of WWE on Sunday, plus another three hours on Monday, plus another three hours on Tuesday (SmackDown and 205Live) and an hour of Wednesday. Ten hours of WWE is a lot of time to devote to one form of entertainment. It almost forces the viewer to pick and choose what he wants to watch and I know WWE’s plan with the brand split was not to force loyal viewers to choose between Raw or SmackDown each week. That’s not the kind of competition they want to foster, and yet—judging by the comments many of you have shared over the past few weeks and months—that’s exactly what happens. There’s simply too much WWE to ingest in a week (especially a PPV week) and fans are more likely to pass on one of the two big shows entirely or at least have a quick-trigger on the remote.

And on Big Four PPV weeks, that means an even bigger commitment on the front-end, because those shows run extra long. It’s not ridiculous to think the typical fan might get burned out by the time Sunday is over and not have the desire to devote another seven hours to the rest of the week’s pro wrestling helping.

WWE’s philosophy behind these longer shows (both the big PPVs and the three-hour Raws) is “give the fans their money’s worth.” I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here (which might be colossally stupid but let’s roll with it) and assuming that Vince cares about his audience and wants to see that ticket buyers are thoroughly entertained.

After all, ticket prices aren’t getting any cheaper. From WWE’s perspective it’s better to keep higher prices and run longer shows than it is to have shorter shows that cost less to attend. At the same time, long show or short, the fact is the cost of attendance is too high without the guarantee of a good show, and WWE hasn’t been able to guarantee a good show every week for over fifteen years.

That’s probably a big part as to why the big PPVs are running longer and longer, with WrestleMania and SummerSlam stretching even to six(!) hours. WWE wants fans to get their money’s worth but in reality they’re just boring their fans to tears.

It’s the promotional equivalent of burning the candle at both ends: Live show revenue is up because they’re running more shows at higher ticket prices, but live show attendance is down because fewer fans are willing to commit to such a long event without the guarantee that they will be sufficiently entertained on a “time spent” to “money paid” ratio.

The WWE has said in the past that their competition is live sports (when they’re talking TV contracts). They’ve also said their competition is network TV scripted shows (when they’re talking on-screen content). But football is mostly a casual sport that you can tune in and out of, unless you’re following “your” team, in which case you’re only watching that one three hour game once a week. Scripted shows mostly run for a single hour a week.

WWE thinks they can compete by offering “your team” or “your show” for ten hours a week. But there are few things AT ALL that can sustain someone’s attention that much, and that’s spreading it out over several days. Individually they’re expecting your attention for three to six hours straight on some nights. Not even in that absolute peak of pro wrestling’s popularity was it popular enough to sustain people’s attention for that many hours at a time, over and over. In fact, the “leave them wanting more” philosophy back then probably greatly contributed to the late-90’s boom in the first place.

I can watch Godfather I and II back to back. I can watch a Star Wars or LOTR marathon. I can binge watch Stranger Things or Battlestar Galactica, but I can also do all of that from my recliner for pennies, take breaks when I want and even stop right in the middle and pick up an episode a day or two later.

Asking me to buy a ticket, face traffic, endure lines, etc, AND sit through six hours of one genre (with no guarentee I will actually like what I see)…that’s simply too much.

Sound off Cagesiders: Do you like WWE’s “more the merrier” philosophy to weekly content? Are you actually watching everything from Sunday/Monday-Wednesday, every week live as it happens? Is this a sustainable business model or will it eventually reach a breaking point where viewers decide to move on to less demanding television? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Until next time, I’m Matthew Martin: I love WWE but everything sucks and I’m never watching again.

See you next Monday.

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